Recognize effects of mental health stigma

By Alison Rogers | Contributor

I am epileptic. However, I think I am going to start wearing a sign to reassure others that all is well and they have nothing to worry about.

My particular brand of epilepsy bridges the gap between physical and mental illness –– while the physical aspect, the seizures, is largely controlled by medicine, the emotional aspect, which borrows characteristics from several mental disorders, remains a challenge.

Baylor has made lots of efforts to “normalize” mental illness. Freshmen receive Chapel training on anxiety, depression and suicide prevention. In September, Fountain Mall was covered with white flags for suicide awareness month. This very newspaper ran a column on Dr. Anderson’s work to dismantle the stigma around these issues.

But one of the first students at Baylor I told about my diagnosis freaked out. One was dismissive. Another asked probing questions that left me exhausted and confused. I keep telling other students, for logistical reasons and because it is a part of my life, but I dread the conversations because I never know what response to expect.

This is not just a Baylor problem. It is a society problem. Mental illness is a part of life for one in six Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But for the other five, it is something to be feared or something to be ignored.

I have only ever seen two people with my diagnosis on TV, in two popular detective shows. The first was a motive for murder as the character blacked out and lost control. He was eventually exonerated, but not before learning that his entire family believed he had murdered his sister during one of his seizures. The second time, it was a punchline. The character died from his illness five feet away from his family, lacking the ability to cry out for help. But this was not viewed as a tragedy, it was viewed as a joke.

The second show would later portray another character as suicidal, with prominent self-harm scars, only to later reveal that she had been faking her problems in order to manipulate the lead character.

News media routinely portrays bigotry and mass shootings as results of mental illness. School shooters are labelled “troubled,” and even if no diagnosis is released, it is understood that no sane person could commit those sorts of crimes. When the president tweeted that he was a “stable genius,” the internet was flooded with the insistence that he was, in fact, mentally unstable. Again, no one without a mental disorder would ever behave the way he does. His actions must be outside of his control. These attitudes –– mental illness as dangerous, as an excuse for bad behavior and as an elaborate falsehood –– do not just upset people who are struggling with it. They have real, painful consequences for society and for the mentally ill community.

If newscasters went on air and claimed, before receiving a description of an attacker, that he was a black male, we would recognize those words as racist. If someone said that a female politician was unfit for her position because of her gender, we would decry those claims as sexist. We are painfully aware of the consequences for these words.

So why do so many people not recognize the consequences of the mental illness narrative?

One fourth of the people killed by police in 2017 were mentally ill, according to a study by Mental Health First Aid. Many people are so afraid of judgement that they will not ask for help or get medical treatment. My best friend will not say her diagnosis in public. I have a recurring fear that I will submit an application for my dream job and be denied because of mine.

I am tired of giving reassurances. I am not a liability. I am much more than my diagnosis.

Alison Rogers is a freshman international studies and journalism double major from Garland.